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As TV Migrates Online, Cable Is Under Pressure to Change

Chris Clinton | Lifesize | Getty Images

It's a long time coming, but television content is showing up on non-TV screens like never before, and people are willing to pay for it. Whatever will become of cable?

For one, experts say, cable companies may finally be forced to kill their sacred cash cow: bundled channels. The battle lines are drawn.

There's Aereo, which takes the old-fashioned TV signal from the air and delivers it to you with the Internet's help, cutting out the cable guy. As for content beyond what's on the airwaves, big players—Amazon, Netflix, Hulu and Google/YouTube—are frantically creating and/or partnering for it at an accelerating pace.

On the other side is Disney's ABC live streaming all the network's content online, which may look like a similar move but the objective is opposite: by offering Watch ABC's live streaming only to authenticated subscribers, it's shoring up the existing framework (the relaunched app went online in New York City and Philadelphia this week and will spread nationwide through the summer; restricted access begins July 1). Same goes for HBO Go: Despite some loose talk from CEO Richard Plepler suggesting the Web service could be bundled with broadband, Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes said no, we've got some pretty important relationships with cable providers to protect.

"You can't bet against the incumbents," said Cameron Yuill, CEO of AdGent Digital, a tablet advertising and digital media company. Still, he noted, the pressure is mounting for the Old Guard to change its ways.

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"Bundling is a dead man walking," Yuill said, adding that as alternatives to cable/satellite become better and more widespread, those companies will "no longer have the luxury of not allowing the one thing that consumers most want"—a la carte TV, instead of paying for hundreds of channels few want or watch.

Some are even trying make cable unbundling happen by law—Arizona Senator John McCain is pushing it in legislation he introduced on May 9, the Television Consumer Freedom Act of 2013.

"They're going to have to bend a little on their delivery systems," said Debra Caruso Marrone, owner of New York media relations firm DJC Communications and blogger at TVTakesAll.com. Aside from cable companies' forcing bundling, she said, "You can't watch what's on your DVR from your iPad, even if you're in your own home. They're behind the times."

The best bet for breaking the cable/satellite stronghold, Yuill said, may be the route Fox followed to transform itself into a major network: Sports. "If the NFL started to go direct to consumers, that could be an absolute game changer."

CBS chief Les Moonves told CNBC that Aereo "is not a serious threat" and claimed the service is illegal, because it charges for transmitting the signal produced by CBS without paying the network anything. In response, IAC CEO Barry Diller, which owns Aereo, told CNBC's "Squawk on the Street" that the company owes no more to networks than Radio Shack does for selling a TV antenna.

(Read More: Netflix Is a Friend, Content Is Still King: CBS' Moonves)

Aereo, which has been in New York for a year, this week launched in Boston and is headed to Atlanta next month.

Television and Web pioneer Scott Kurnit said cable companies need not be too worried about Aereo; if it's determined to be quite legal (it has one legal victory in its pocket already), they can simply duplicate the service and pocket the retransmission fees they currently pay the networks.

Perhaps that's why the networks feel the most heat. Moonves even threatened to turn off CBS's over-the-air transmission and become just another cable network.

"It would be a fascinating issue for the FCC," said Kurnit, adding that if that bandwidth were then turned over to the mobile Internet it would be great for digital consumers. "I'd love that," said Kurnit, who founded About.com and the first pay-per-view cable network.

On the other hand, that would leave out in the cold the 17 percent of Americans who still count on the over-the-air transmission.

While Aereo may be of little concern for now, there may be more to sweat from the content threats.

Google's YouTube launched 53 pay channels (typically a few dollars per month) with 30 partners last week. Then DreamWorks Animation bought a YouTube channel—Awesomeness—for $33 million. Amazon last month released 14 original series, and on Friday signed an exclusive deal with Comcast's NBC/Universal to stream five of its shows on Amazon Prime Instant Video service. (Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBC/Universal and CNBC.)

Netflix is shooting the second season of its well-received original series "House of Cards," and it added 2 million subscribers—a 7 percent gain—in the quarter when this first effort was released. And rabid "Arrested Development" fans are planning marathon viewing parties of long-awaited Season 4—all 15 episodes will be released exclusively on Netflix on May 26.

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Can Big Cable adapt? Andrew Susskind of Drexel University's Westphal College of Media Arts & Design said it can hold onto its incumbent's advantage by becoming more flexible on bundling and getting more aggressive on video-on-demand. "Essentially making more or all content available, all the time, to anyone, on any device."

DePauw University Media Studies Professor Jeff McCall agrees. "Cable's financial model will undoubtedly have to change," he said. "Big cablers have long thought they only competed against themselves. Now they need to justify their existence more broadly, particularly to younger audiences for whom traditional television, even cable, is just not that essential or relevant anymore."

By CNBC's Matt Twomey. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Twomey.

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